You’ve been planning and building a studio for your students, working through your camera options, switcher options, and dozens of other options and you’re finally ready to choose a prompter.
Wow, there are a lot of options. Isn’t a prompter a prompter? Let’s break this down so we can narrow those options a bit.
Camera Comes First
Nearly all facilities start with the camera and this is first of the 3 fundamental factors that will narrow down your search for a teleprompter. Both the weight of the camera and the form factor will be important, but we’ll start with the form factor. The camera body will fall into one of 3 basic categories:
- ENG style, shoulder mounted camera
- DV style, hand held camera
- DSLR style photography camera with video capability
You’ll know an ENG camera by its large size and by their large price tags. If you’re lucky enough to have ENG cameras, you’ll be looking for prompters with large mount plates. They’ll need to be long enough to allow 2 mount points which will secure the camera to the prompter well enough to keep the heavy camera from twisting when making pan moves. This may be a particular challenge if you’ve chosen a long lens, so make sure you get a mount plate that is at least 70% of the total length of your camera/lens assembly. You’ll also want to make sure there’s some adjustment in the hood of the prompter allowing you to position the lens of the camera to get direct eye contact from talent while they read the script.
DV cameras are much shorter than ENG cameras and, in most cases, they will have a built-in lens which will keep your variables to a minimum. These will need only a single mount point, so the plate on the prompter can be much shorter and it doesn’t need to support nearly as much weight. One good thing about owning a DV type hand held camera is that there are many prompter options that fall into lower pricing categories that can really help your budget stretch. The challenge is finding one that will come with a riser plate that will allow you to raise the camera to the optimal position. Where some prompters come with fully adjustable risers, some don’t come with risers at all and will charge you extra to purchase one, so making sure the mount comes with some sort of riser as standard will be a huge help to your budget and sanity.
DSLR cameras are generally used for photography, so you might be surprised to learn that this type of camera is even an option. Most now have video capability and the strong appeal with these is their ability to interchange lenses – much like the more expensive ENG style cameras mentioned above. Because of their small footprint and because of their ability to interchange lenses, you’ll have to make sure the prompter comes with a mount plate at least 70% of the length of the camera and lens assembly. This should be very easy, but combine that will the need to raise the camera, and you’ll probably find that your teleprompter options narrow quite quickly. Something to consider is the ability for a prompter to mount to a 15mm lightweight support system as you may already be using one to mount other accessories like focus controls or viewfinders.
Determine the Distance
The second fundamental factor that will focus your search for a teleprompter is the distance from talent to the camera. Get something too small, and it might be hard to read. Get something too big, and you might spend more money than you need to. A great rule of thumb is one inch per foot. If talent is 12 feet away, then you should get a 12” screen on your prompter. A common misconception is that a bigger screen is better in every instance, and that leads many to go straight for the 19” prompter monitors even though they might be more expensive. Not only might they be spending more money than they need to, but they might also be sacrificing the quality of the production! The whole point of a prompter is to improve the production quality, but let’s look at an example of when the prompter monitor size can really work against you.
Now, everyone gets why a teleprompter with too small a screen might not work, but let’s say you’re working in a very small studio. The dimensions might be something like 10 feet by 10 feet. When you put the camera and support into the studio with enough room behind it for an operator, you might be left with 7 feet from the camera to the opposite wall. But, when you put talent in the room, you’re not going to mash them up against the wall, right? They might be standing in front of a green screen or backdrop that will require something like 2 feet of free space in order to make room for proper lighting. That means talent will be only 5 feet from the camera. What do you think happens when you put a 19” prompter monitor in front of them? You’ll see their eyes – and maybe even their whole head – moving back and forth while they read! How more obvious can you get that their reading a script? You almost might as well have them read from a printed piece of paper in their hand! If you give them a 5” or an 8” prompter, on the other hand, you’ll see that talent is able to maintain a steady gaze that gives that professional look of direct eye contact with the audience. Now that’s the high quality production you expect a teleprompter to help you achieve!
Once you’ve found a prompter that will fit your camera and your studio space, it’s time to figure out how to get the best value for the money. You might be really squeezed and have no choice but to take the cheapest option, but if you’re like me, you’ll want to find something that will be easy to use and will stand up to years of use. It’s a cliché for a reason; you get what you pay for. You don’t want to be paying for new prompters next year because the ones you bought couldn’t stand up to your students’ most, shall we say, “creative” use and abuse, do you? Consider what the teleprompter is made of. Is it really a good idea to buy a prompter made of plastic if it’s going to have to last several semesters of mounting, dismounting, and remounting again? It might be a better idea to find a unit with all metal construction so you don’t have to worry about relying on super glue to bail you out of yet another accident.
You might also consider what the beamsplitter in the hood of the teleprompter is made of. You might consider going with a plexi beamsplitter if your teleprompter is going to be traveling all the time. What good is a teleprompter with high-quality glass beamsplitter if it’s broken in transit and you can’t even use it? You might also not appreciate the added weight from an all-metal construction if your carry case doesn’t come with wheels. On the other hand, a broken plastic assembly isn’t much good either, so a better case might be in order. Add to that, the fact that plexi will cloud and even become discolored over time, so you’ll need to factor in the cost and convenience of ordering a replacement from time to time. There are also different glass coatings to consider. The two most common are 60/40 (60% passive, 40% reflective) and 70/30 (70% passive, 30% reflective). 60/40 glass will make it easier for talent to read the script, but your camera will receive less light and the image will suffer as a result. It’s usually a good idea to stick with 70/30 glass unless you have a very good camera sensor that can handle low light and a lens with a 2.0 aperture or lower.
One tip I’ve found personally helpful is to look at the assembly manual for the unit. The easier the unit is to use, the shorter the manual. Some assembly manuals are 15 pages and more, making it seem like you need an engineering degree to get the prompter up and running. A long and complicated manual might also indicate there is a high cost of replacement parts and an unusually high level of maintenance required to keep the unit functional. Simplicity will also help you and your students focus on the parts of the production that matter most – creating engaging content. I think we can all agree that spending hours assembling and maintaining equipment isn’t productive or enjoyable use of anyone’s time. And we can probably also agree that spending precious dollars in your budget to replace missing parts is not the best use of the funds your program has been given!
Coming to Conclusions
There are a lot of teleprompter options for your video production program, but considering camera, distance, and quality can really help focus your search on the prompter units that can best meet your specific needs. You might find that you still need some feedback and information to help make that final decision, and a trusted source with a broad knowledgebase simply can’t be replaced. A quick online search will uncover lots of info and even some user reviews, but connecting with a live person with experience that can answer your specific questions might be the most valuable resource of all. Fortune favors the bold, so reach out to a local video production facility to see if they would be willing to give you some advice. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how helpful local engineers and facility managers can be to educational institutions, and many go WAY out of their way to provide access to their expertise. They tend to be a breed that is in this industry because they love it and are more than willing to share their passion for gear to help you make the best decision for your facility.